California deserts: Joshua Tree


sun through the Joshua tree

By the end of February, I seemed to have survived winter’s fiercest blasts, mostly by moving from high to low camps in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. depending on the weather. Twice I scurried out of the park altogether to hunker down at the Oasis Palms RV park in Thermal, California on the western side of the Salton Sea.

I was ready, I thought, to move farther north where it might not be so easy to scurry to the comfort of full hookups. (Electricity, water, warm showers–that kind of stuff.)

Joshua Tree National Park has always intrigued me because its name is so lyrical. Joshua trees were so named, I discovered, by the Mormons, who traveled through the desert in the mid-1800s. Apparently, the twisted plants with their limbs akimbo reminded them of Joshua lifting his arms in supplication to the Lord. Now, they remind people more of Dr. Suess. My friend, Sue, advises a peek at his book The Lorax. I haven’t done it, yet. Tell me what you think.

Joshua trees and clouds

The Joshua tree is really a giant version of a yucca. The Grandfather of this park is 40 feet high and may be 100 years old—not really so old or so large, but darned big for a yucca. I was to find, however, that various species of Joshua tree are widely spread throughout this Mojave desert region. After the first, incredible sight of a Joshua tree forest, they became a fixture of the desert landscape, and I stopped noticing them.

All along this eastern side of California is where the higher Mojave desert meets the lower Colorado desert regions. You can see the difference as you climb in altitude from one side of the park to the other: creosote scrub dominates the lower region; juniper and Joshua tree forests appear higher up.

As a popular national park, Joshua Tree seems tame and easy to navigate, at least on the more-traveled paths (which I stuck to). Indeed, it has been traveled through, settled on, mined, ranched, and farmed since the mid-1800s, not to mention the lightfooted impact of hunter-gatherer native tribes for thousands of years before. Not long ago, over 300 gold mines dotted the region, only a fraction of which actually made anyone rich. One of those was the ten-stamp Ryan mine. In those days, mining gold involved crushing big rocks into smaller ones and then pounding them (with the stamp crushers) to a sandy pulp mixed with precious water and mercury. Lovely process. The Ryan mine crushed rock with its ten stamps 24 hours a day. Such is the motivating power of greed.  I was glad to see that the desert had done some stamping out of its own.

abandoned car at Wall Street Mine

For me, the high points of Joshua Tree:

  • Lost Palms Oasis trail. By now, I’ve see many palm oases, but this hike was special because it was so varied, from views of the Salton Sea shimmering in the distance to winding sandy paths through rock. The palm oasis at the end was also entrancing.
  • Wonderland of Rocks. From a distance, these fantastical, Suess-worthy piles of rocks look like the dribble castles kids make at the beach. You can see them from a stiff climb up Ryan Mountain; you can hike among them at Barker Dam or camp among them at Jumbo Rocks campground. I did all three.
  • Key’s View was spectacular. I was overlooking the valley where I’d recently spent a few weeks.

Can anyone add to the list? What are your favorite spots?

If there is an icon of this park aside from the Joshua tree, it is the desert tortoise. “Maybe you’ll see one,” rangers say in reverent tones. I had begun to think that this tortoise was a mythical invention to lure the public into coming back, hopelessly searching for the desert tortoise. Then, on my last hike to Lost Palms, right by the path, there it was—a young desert tortoise. It dragged its clumsy self over the rocky hillside and munched contently on microscopic bits of plant, completely oblivious to the joyous frenzy going on around it.

Folks, I’m here to tell you, the desert tortoise lives!

Here’s the Joshua Tree slideshow. Click on any photo to begin.

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13 Responses to California deserts: Joshua Tree

  1. Your envious daughter 1 April, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    The camping tank looks like the one those people had when we were traveling and they went crazy places with it. Remember that??? It’s like exactly that same. AHH! Mom i want to gooooooooo

  2. dave and sue sprinkle 1 April, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    Enjoyed your pictures and narration. Miss you and sharing some adventures.
    I think its our turn to have the potluck dinner in the Glacier Eggspress!

  3. Theodora 1 April, 2011 at 2:53 am #

    Desert parks can be amazing. I’m with the Lorax on the Joshua Tree, though I can see how, after dragging themselves through there in heavy duty serge woollens and the like, the notion of Joshua himself would spring easily to mind.

  4. Kate 31 March, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    They were so mobbed by curious folks, I decided to stick with pics.

  5. cary carlson 30 March, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    That was our park 1975-1980, kinda dates us. We were stationed at Cottonwood, the southern end. So glad you got there for some flowers. My favorite was always Lost Palms tho it was a longer trek than most. seemed more intimate, and usually had bighorn sheep. Yer gittin to be one desert RAT. Cary and Ed

    • Kate 30 March, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

      I’m getting there, although right now I’m battling ticks on the central california coast. The desert looks pretty sweet from here. I think the Lost Palms trail was my favorite, too.

  6. Cyndy Pietronico 29 March, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Can’t wait to see where you go next!

  7. MaryKat Parks Workinger 29 March, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    I love it when you include pics of yourself–Kate–it helps me feel like I’m there with you and the tortoise! Your smile says it all.

    • Kate 30 March, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

      It’s always a challenge to take pics of yourself when you’re by yourself. I haven’t figured out the timer function on the camera, so I’m dependent on someone else. Anyway, I hate my own pics–must be pride.

  8. Anne 29 March, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Wow, really seems like there is much more going on in the desert than anyone would expect! I love your articles – everyone of them is like a ten minute vacation from the boring (and cold) everyday life! You’re pictures are great – can’t believe that the desert is really blooming and that there’s a tortoise living there.
    Travel safe!

    • Kate 30 March, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

      Blossoms. Tortoises. Coyotes. Birds. All there. But I don’t think many places on earth are completely without life. There’s always SOMETHING to see.

      I love that you’re reading this. Put yourself in the pictures!

      • Anne 31 March, 2011 at 11:28 am #

        Of course I read this – I enjoy your stories so much! Makes me want to travel too.
        Did you actually meet the people in the “German” Mercedes camper that’s on one of your pictures?


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